A Tradition of Apricots: Father’s Day Feature from Author Robin Chapman

June 12, 2013

Author Feature, California

“Nowhere else in the world was anything like this to be seen; neither is there anything like it to be seen now. Thousands came to California year after year to see the breathtaking beauty of these fruitful valleys. We are greatly poorer to have lost most of it…” — Robert Couchman

Santa Clara Valley postcard. Courtesy Robin Chapman.

Robin Chapman’s book, California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley, takes readers home to a time when bumper crops from fruit orchards sweetened the Santa Clara Valley’s long summers. As Sal Pizarro of the Mercury News writes, Chapman’s book is a “well-researched, amazing ode to the Santa Clara Valley’s agricultural heritage.” In a way, the book is also an ode to Chapman’s father, who built their family home amidst the apricots trees in Los Altos. In this special feature for History Press West, Chapman shares how a family legacy inspired her to research and write about the roots of Silicon Valley’s apricot tradition.

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Courtesy Robin Chapman

My father was the inspiration for my new book, California Apricots: Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley. This may sound curious to some since he was a civil engineer and not an apricot grower. But, thereby hangs a tale–as the oft-quoted line from the Bard so aptly puts it.

William Ashley Chapman cut a pretty dashing figure. He was tall and slim and Cary Grant handsome. Intelligent, witty, competitive and driven: he was a man who almost never sat down, except at the dinner table or, upon occasion, to stretch out and take a quick nap smack in the middle of our living room floor. He was so busy—this magical, energetic figure from my childhood—that much of the time, especially as I grew up, he seemed to be just out of my reach.

Courtesy Robin Chapman

He served as an officer in the Army Reserves in which he achieved the rank of full colonel. He earned a Master’s Degree in Civil Engineering while maintaining a full-time job. He was a championship target shooter. He flew a private plane. He was our family’s car repairman and our only gardener. He mowed our lawn with a push mower, as a means of keeping fit, and didn’t even own a power mower until he was 80 years old and then got one, “Just in case.” Did I mention he drove a Jaguar XKE? That he restored himself?

He built our first house, too. As a returning veteran of World War II, he discovered there had been no civilian housing built during the war. When he took a job at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, he and my mother had to rent a room in Palo Alto. With my older sister’s birth, there were three of them in that room. Dad found a quarter-acre lot in nearby Los Altos that had been subdivided from an apricot orchard. The pretty little house he built there—on weekends, while working full time at Ames—was ready for me when I came home from the hospital in March of 1950.

As he was building the house, my father preserved many of the fruit trees on the lot and incorporated them into his landscape design. It probably wouldn’t happen that way today. But fresh fruit was valuable then, especially to couples like my parents who had seen their families struggle through the Great Depression. 

Add to that the fact that my father had just spent two years in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific on remote islands consuming “K” and “C” rations, and you may get a hint of what those fruit trees meant to my father. Soldiers don’t just dream of girls. They also dream of food. —California Apricots

Dad kept a dozen of the original apricot trees so we had almost a ton of apricots to dispense with each summer. In those early days, he was a bit like a grown-up child himself and my sister and I spent many happy hours with him, helping him pick the fruit, cut the fruit for drying, and burying the last of the crop when it was too far gone to use.

Our family’s series of lucky accidents placed us, and the many other families who moved to the valley after World War II, in a position to straddle the region’s two economies. Agriculture was both its past and its present when my parents came to California. Technology, which supported our family, was a small part of its present but became all of its future.–California Apricots

When my father was 90 years old I moved back home to help care for him. He may have been ill but he was still handsome and funny, and would always sing, “Hail, Hail, The Gangs All Here,” when I rode my bike over to see him.  I helped my mother ease his days until she died just a few months before he did.

After I had lost him, I found a notebook in his dresser drawer.

It was old and battered and when I opened it up I found a real surprise inside. It was a logbook, written in his own neat hand, of all the hours he had spent building our first house in the apricot orchard. He had saved that little notebook the rest of his life.

Courtesy Robin Chapman

It was that moment of discovery that gave me the inspiration to write California Apricots. Begun as a tribute to my father and the first apricot orchard of my childhood, the book led me on a journey through the history of the apricot in my home state and into the orchards that had once made the Santa Clara Valley the largest fruit producer in the world. My father had this surprising gift in store for me, waiting for me to discover. Which just goes to prove that the people we love never really leave us. Even after they are gone.

Courtesy Robin Chapman

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Robin Chapman is a native of the Santa Clara Valley who earned a Master’s Degree at University of California, Los Angeles, before setting out on a career in television news. During her years as a journalist, she worked as a reporter and anchor at KVOA-TV in Tucson, Arizona; KGW-TV in Portland, Oregon; KRON-TV in San Francisco; WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C.; WESH-TV in Orlando, Florida; and as a national correspondent in Washington D.C. for Group W-TV. In 2009, she returned to California to be closer to her elderly parents and, following their deaths, decided to resettle in her home state. California Apricots is her fourth book of regional history, and her first about California.

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Join author Robin Chapman at Los Altos Town Hall Sunday, July 7, for a special author talk and to share your own family stories of Santa Clara Valley’s agricultural traditions.

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Related Posts:

New from American Palate West: California Apricots

Interview with Juanita Lovret, Author of Tustin As It Once Was

Father’s Day Golf Special

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